Monday, May 01, 2017

The Commentariat Speaks (10)

Ministers ... er ... ministering.
From the department of “If I live long enough, absolutely everything will get covered here at least once”, here is commenter Nate on the subject of women in church leadership:

“actually we [Methodists] aren’t nearly as hung up on this as you guys are. The point is ... regardless of how you can twist scripture ... women factually were leaders in the apostolic church. Yes ... including pheobe [sic] and more importantly lydia.

Not to mention Timothy’s own grandmother who paul credits.”

No scripture twisting required, but perhaps a little actual scripture reading would help.

Now, I take no issue at all with Nate’s statement that women in the apostolic church were “leaders” in an informal sense (by example and reputation), but we need to understand what that meant to the early church in practice. Nate doesn’t, since he uses the term synonymously with “female ministers” to describe women who today are paid public teachers of men in some churches.

Here he could not be more wrong.

Grandma Takes the Pulpit

Let’s start with the most egregious example Nate cites: Timothy’s grandmother. Here’s the sum total of everything Paul has to say about her:
“I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”
That’s it, that’s all. Grandma Lois, Paul says, was a genuine believer. That tells us nothing about how her faith manifested itself or how Lois served in her church, assuming she attended one (we don’t even know that for sure). Then there’s this:
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
Timothy was “acquainted with the sacred writings” from childhood. Some people reasonably infer that since his father was a Greek, it must have been his mother and/or grandmother that taught him. That doesn’t make either one a “female minister”. It makes them a good mother and grandmother.

In short, there is not a shred of evidence that Timothy’s grandma ever opened her mouth in her local church, let alone that she was a church “leader” in the sense the word is used in Hebrews (or by Nate).

Phoebe’s Famed Expository Gift

As with Grandma Lois, Phoebe gets a single name check from the apostle Paul in the book of Romans:
“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well.”
Here we learn that Phoebe served her church by being a patron. Vine’s says this of the Greek noun translated “patron”:
Prostates was the title of a citizen in Athens, who had the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of resident aliens who were without civic rights. Among the Jews it signified a wealthy patron of the community.”
If we were to draw any conclusions about Phoebe from this description, it would be that she was (i) well off (though not necessarily; Paul could be using prostatis metaphorically), and (ii) hospitable. She cared for others in need, and it is likely Paul had stayed with her at one point.

The Diakonos Red Herring

The fact that Phoebe is also called a “servant” of the church (diakonos, sometimes translated “deacon”) is a total red herring. That Greek noun (and its related verb) occur 68 times in the New Testament, a mere six of which have anything to do with formal, recognized local church responsibilities.

Far more often the word is used in a generic sense and simply means one who serves or cares for another, often in a rather menial way. In John, for instance, diakonos is used of the help that poured wine at the wedding at Cana; and in Matthew, of the angels who cared for the Lord Jesus in the wilderness after his temptation; and in Acts, of those selected to “wait on tables”, a task which Luke sets in direct contrast to “preaching the word of God”.

Now of course, teaching publicly in the church is undeniably a form of service, but it is not remotely the only kind possible. Other than calling her a “patron”, Paul doesn’t tell us how Phoebe served; he doesn’t tell us that it was formal, recognized service; he doesn’t tell us she served publicly; and he certainly doesn’t tell us that she served vocally in church meetings. Above all, he does not tell us that she taught Christian men anything at all.

Anyone using Phoebe as an example of a “female minister” in the public teaching sense must infer it from zero evidence. Paul does not say it.

Pastor Lydia, Thyatira’s Finest

Finally, we have Lydia, who according to Nate is the very best example of a woman in public ministry:
“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ And she prevailed upon us.”
Here we discover that after her baptism, Lydia offered the apostle and his companions hospitality in her home, and that after their brief time in jail, she did so again.

Not only was Lydia NOT a public teacher in a first century church, but when Paul and his companions visited Philippi and met her, there was not yet even a church established in that city! And later, when Paul sends his letter to the Philippians, Lydia’s name does not even come up. Perhaps she had returned to Thyatira by then. So while she was undeniably pivotal to the work in Philippi in providing a place for the apostle and his friends to stay, and in establishing a believing “beachhead” there, she doesn’t prove Nate’s point at all.

Absolutely Terrible

Oddly enough, after attempting to demonstrate that the apostolic church was full of female ministers, Nate finishes this way:
“Do I think the church is better off without female ministers? Yes. Actually i do. 99 out of 100 female ministers I have met and heard are absolutely terrible.”
Now, I haven’t got Nate’s years of experience sitting under the teaching of women “pastors” in Methodist churches. I can count the women I’ve heard teach the Bible from a church platform in my life on … er … no hands. So I’ll defer to his opinion, but I should probably note that I’ve met and heard plenty of male “ministers” in my time whose messages were also absolutely terrible. For that matter, I may well have preached some.

The fact is, Christians do not decide whether a woman may teach the people of God when we come together on the basis of our subjective analysis of her speaking ability or our even more subjective assessment of whether the “Spirit is strong” in her.

Hopefully, we also don’t decide who may teach the people of God on the basis of New Testament examples that have nothing to do with the subject.

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